Local Filmmaker Catherine Pancake Hopes To Bring the Devastation of Mountaintop Removal Mining To a Theater Near You
Catherine Pancake’s nightmares started after she saw it for the first time with her own eyes. Her sister had told her about it. She had read a little bit about it. But it wasn’t until she and her sister went up to Larry Gibson’s family cemetery on Kayford Mountain, about 35 miles southeast of Charleston, W.Va., that Pancake saw just what a surface-mining technique called mountaintop removal can do.
“When you live there you have this relationship with the land, it’s really like a living thing to you,” Pancake says of the Appalachian landscape. “And when you see it literally bombed out for miles, your mind can hardly conceive it.”
Mountaintop removal is an aggressive form of coal mining that entails identifying a coal seam and, rather than expensively drilling through rock to get at but a fraction of the entire reserve, setting explosives into the mountainside and blowing away the rock to expose the seam, which can then be more easily scooped up and transported. It’s a more inexpensive and efficient way to get coal out of the ground and to the processing plants, but it leaves behind tons of rock, soil, and debris from the blasting, which is bulldozed into the adjacent valleys to create “fills,” often burying streams, contaminating local water supplies, and irrevocably changing water runoff routes on mountainsides. And since the strategy’s more widespread emergence in the early 1980s, it’s become the single greatest threat to the Appalachian environment and the people who live in its hollows in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. It turns verdant mountains into leveled, terraced gray plains that look like Aztec ruins on a lunar landscape.
These little-seen wasteland patches have become Pancake’s life’s work in the past six years. A low-key and preoccupied 39-year-old, Pancake is better known around Baltimore as a perpetual-motion machine in experimental arts circles—be it music (she was one of the founders of the Red Room Collective), performance (a founding member of the organizing body behind the upcoming Transmodern Age festival), filmmaking (with some 10 films/videos to her credit), or sexuality/gender (a founding member of the Charm City Kitty Club).
Since Pancake arrived in Baltimore in the early 1990s, you could see her attending, organizing, working at, or performing at just about every local avant performance, happening, and event over the past decade-plus. She was always the preternaturally busy one, a no-nonsense woman whose striking features were always made more striking by her unfussy manner and calm intensity: jeans, everyday shirt, not-long-but-not-short blond hair. She is the kind of woman who catches the eye by her very innocuousness, the kind who turns plain into its opposite.
Except over the past few years she’s been noticeably absent from every show, opening, what have you. Since 2000, the West Virginia native has spent much of her personal time driving the six hours each way to the southwestern part of the state to work on something far more conventional—her recently completed narrative documentary feature debut, Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Search for Coalfield Justice.
Born in Summersville, in central West Virginia, Pancake grew up in the state’s eastern panhandle and remembers her father preaching against strip mining in the early 1970s. It’s the sort of life lesson that builds strong ties to a place. “Like, for people who love the ocean—it’s like if you went to the Outer Banks and somebody has just blown it all up,” Pancake says, trying to find an appropriate comparison. “Or like New Orleans—the way seeing New Orleans completely destroyed is just awful. You see it in the movies and whatever, but when your actual neighborhood gets blown up, it’s a whole different emotional ball game.”
“Seeing it—even in films and photographs it’s really hard to capture the magnitude of the destruction,” says her sister Ann Pancake, over the phone from Seattle. Currently working on a novel about mountaintop removal, the Pushcart and Whiting award-winning author was teaching creative writing at Penn State Erie in 1998-’02 when she first heard about mountaintop removal via an online list server for Appalachian academics. (She had done her Ph.D. dissertation partly on Appalachian studies and social class.)
Ann prodded Catherine to come down with her camera and take a look, and she accompanied her sister on her first trips to interview area residents. Catherine wanted to shoot some basic footage that might be used to raise awareness of the issue. Though she had previously made a handful of experimental shorts, she didn’t see the footage snowballing into a long-term, feature-length project. But the experience of seeing the destruction firsthand was hard to shake.
“The first time I saw it was with Catherine in March of 2000 when we first started filming,” Ann says. “And it—it completely blew me away. It’s absolutely apocalyptic.”
This is the aghast response of the people who don’t even live there anymore. For the families who grew up surrounded by these formerly verdant peaks and remained there until being driven out, the effect is even more cataclysmic.
“It breaks my heart,” says Julia “Judy” Bonds over the phone. The 53-year-old West Virginia native and activist was awarded the 2003 Goldman Prize, the country’s top recognition for activist work, and is now the outreach coordinator of the Coal River Mountain Watch environmental organization. “That’s where my ancestors settled. It makes me angry and it breaks my heart and it makes me want to cry and it puts me down on my knees to pray to God.”
“It literally is happening right before my eyes,” says Maria Gunnoe, another citizen turned activist; she’s now a community organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. Gunnoe lives in Bob White, a Boone County hollow below an 1,100-acre mountaintop removal site and six waste ponds. “I can sit on my front porch right now and watch a backhoe tearing off the mountain,” she says. “And I can see this one in particular, the backside of the mountain is gone, and now they’re working on the side within view . . . the one that directly [faces] my home.”
During the past 20-plus years of mountaintop removal mining in her hollow, Gunnoe’s quality of life has steadily declined. Surrounded by mine sites, her property value has plummeted so much that she can’t sell and relocate. Her wells are contaminated, and she spends $250 per month on bottled water, which she has to haul 500 feet from her driveway to her home. And since 1997, when she started voicing her objections to any and every local, state, and federal agency that would listen, the pace of the mining hasn’t subsided one bit.
“Watching this happen throughout my lifetime, it leaves no question in my mind about what causes the flooding here,” she continues. “It’s extremely infuriating, and you’re doing everything you can to stop them, but every level of the government that’s supposed to be protecting me as a United States citizen has turned their back on me, all in the name of energy and production.”
Since starting Diamonds, Catherine Pancake and her sister have joined these activist ranks, pressed on by the fuel of moral indignation. “It’s like you lost a friend,” Pancake says. “It makes you feel grief. And I would come back [to Baltimore] and I would have terrible nightmares of death and destruction. I’m having nightmares just from going down there and looking at it and I don’t even live there anymore.
“I had this dream where I’m up on one of the sites with my sister and we’re looking around, and we look down and we realize that the whole mountain is made out of crushed human bones. It’s nothing but these weird, apocalyptic, macabre dreams of death and destruction. It’s like living in a war zone.”
For the record, what follows is not the story of mountaintop removal, per se. It’s not even the story of Black Diamonds, which offers its own version of the mountaintop removal story. What follows is, really, a reminder of something that goes on every day. It’s an exploration of what goes on when people live in a place from which people with means want something, or what goes on in those parts of the country that we prefer not to have to think about. It’s a story that spins webs of collisions among local, state, and national politics; urban and rural sensibilities; environmental agencies, energy conglomerates, and organized labor. Underneath it all lurks that most translucent boundary in American history and culture: class.
Presently, the political, economic, and environmental issues surrounding mountaintop removal float in that odd limbo of the hidden in plain sight. It was named as one of 2005’s top 10 underreported stories in mainstream media by Sonoma State University’s Project Censored. And yet, the story of mountaintop removal has already been told in national media as it went from a regional topic in the late ’80s to a national one in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Nightline devoted coverage to the topic in 1998, as did 60 Minutes in 2000. During this period, major newspapers—the New York Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and Los Angeles Times, among others—ran long-form, narrative investigative pieces in the 2,000- to 5,000-word range. (For the most thorough reportage about mountaintop removal and the coal industry, see the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr., whose reporting not only deserves every award it’s earned him but should be held up as a model of beat reporting by journalism schools.)
The reason for this surge in attention was due to a lawsuit filed in July 1998 by 88 homeowners and the environmental group West Virginia Highlands Conservancy against the West Virginia Coal Association and the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, the governing bodies that grant mountaintop removal permits. The complainants claimed that the authorities had violated regulations stipulated by the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) and the 1977 amended Federal Water Pollution Control Act, aka the Clean Water Act. Known as Bragg v. Robertson, the case momentarily slowed down the proliferation of mountaintop removal sites when Charles H. Haden II, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Charleston, ruled in October 1999 that the rock and dirt bulldozed off sites into adjoining valleys violated the SMCRA and Clean Water Act.
The lawsuit “gave us something to talk about,” says Bonds, who wasn’t named as a plaintiff in the case but, like many activists, considers it one of their few victories. “We kept the wolves away from our door with that lawsuit.”
The ruling—and its eventual overturning by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2001 on grounds that the 11th Amendment to the Constitution forbids citizens from using federal courts to leverage state agencies, restoring and quickening the mountaintop removal permit process—constitutes roughly the first two-thirds of Black Diamonds, an impressive storytelling feat considering the ground Pancake had to cover.
Once Pancake started going down to shoot mountaintop removal’s scarred-earth remains in 2000, she also started meeting and interviewing activists. She soon learned that these activists, despite their passion and the furor of legal wrangling, weren’t getting their stories into the then-current coverage. “At that point I could see clearly that there was a story,” Pancake says, recalling the burgeoning attention Bragg v. Robertson brought to the region. “It really ratcheted up the tension level of the whole thing. So I could feel that tension and I could see it was a national issue at this point.”
Interviewing both coal industry supporters (West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Rainey) and politicians (state Del. Arley Johnson, former West Virginia secretary of state Ken Hechler, West Virginia Division of Forestry director William Maxey) in addition to activists and hollow residents, Pancake worked small. Interviews were conducted by Pancake solo, or with her sister, with only a digital-video camera and no crew. She shot in people’s offices, homes, front porches, yards, wherever people wanted to talk.
Working low-impact put “me and my sister predominant, and the camera was less dominant,” Pancake says. “And I think it actually helped the interviews because there wasn’t a big camera and a big crew. So maybe technically it’s not great, but I felt we had to do that to get the intimacy level we needed with people.”
Also helping establish and maintain that intimacy level was the fact that Pancake and her sister were from West Virginia but didn’t live there anymore. They were familiar enough with the region to speak the same language, but after talking about what was going on and going wrong, they took their cameras and left.
“It made all the difference in the world,” Pancake says. “There was an instant trust factor. And all you have to do is say where you’re from and they know that you get it. And when you tell somebody right off the bat that the only thing that’s really important to you is presenting our people as intelligent, competent, and deeply passionate about this, and they get that, too.”
The problem facing Pancake was telling this story in toto. For the citizens of Appalachia, mountaintop removal—a technique that makes up about two-thirds of all surface-mining sites in the state, surface mining itself constituting approximately one-third of all coal mining in the state—is but the latest in a generations-long fight with the coal industry that stretches back to coal mining’s industrialization in the late 19th century.
“It’s a matter of the way it’s always been in Appalachia—sometimes you look at something that’s very harsh and strange for so long that it becomes normal,” Bonds says. “We’ve been fighting this battle for over 40 years. I’m still holding the same signs that the women in Kentucky held back in the ’60s.”
Diamonds makes that connection crystal clear. Using archival TV and industrial footage, Pancake traces coal’s relatively recent resurgence as an energy source. Long the primary fossil fuel for American electricity, coal was surpassed in the 1950s by relatively cheap oil, only to return in to dominance in the 1960s and 1970s as the demand for lower-emission, cleaner-burning electricity sources (such as bituminous coal) came in demand. Today, burning coal generates more than half the electricity in America, despite its problematic image.
Mountaintop removal “in the environmental community, it’s a dirty word,” says coal analyst Jamie Heller over the phone from his Chevy Chase office. With an MBA and an engineering background, Heller has worked with and in the coal industry since the 1970s, first with the Environmental Protection Agency and then conducting economic analysis of the coal industry, usually for coal or utility companies. “It’s a surrogate for raping the landscape.”
Even given its environmental baggage, mountaintop removal is considered a viable strategy by the coal industry for its efficacy: It yields coal more quickly and thoroughly than other forms of mining, using more machinery and fewer specialized laborers. “They can pretty much get to all the reserves for the part of the mountain that they’ve stripped off,” Heller says. “It effects the economics of the coal-mining operation, plus the amount of reserves that are going to be able to be taken.”
As a result, coal companies fight anti-mountaintop-removal activism tooth and nail—not that it’s that difficult. Unlike environmental and humanitarian organizations and movements such as Greenpeace, Farm Aid, or even the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Appalachian citizen activists don’t have widespread media profiles, large annual operating budgets, established community organization infrastructures, or even the de facto consensus opinion of the region. Well-established organizations can take steps—say, all those save the bay stickers—that help accrue regional recognition that attracts more donations and volunteers; the Appalachian activists fight with a much smaller arsenal. Younger generations of natives—such as Pancake and her sister—often leave the area for college and jobs (college-age activists have only recently made their presence felt in mountaintop removal activism). Bonds, Gunnoe, and most other citizen activists come from an older generation; Diamonds includes footage from a community meeting protesting a mountaintop removal permit, and none of the estimated 100 attendees looks under the age of 40.
Funding, organization, and raising visibility, however, can be learned, improved, and changed. The most difficult obstacle Appalachian activists have to overcome is perception. Coal companies, like any big business with legal teams and advertising budgets, know that excoriating press and environmental court battles may stir outcry, but popular opinion is won in the public sphere. Coal companies wage their war against activism as PR campaigns.
“One of the problems [of mountaintop removal media coverage] is that the same people speak out about it,” Ann Pancake says. “There are these token people down in the southern coalfields who’ll talk about it, so [reporters] talk to the same people over and over again. I really admire those people, and it takes a lot of courage to do it ,but it would be wonderful if they got a broader spectrum of people who were affected by it.”
In fact, except for Pancake and her sister, the activists interviewed for this article have been interviewed for other pieces and for Black Diamonds. Both Gunnoe and Bonds have now been speaking out against mountaintop removal for eight, nine years. In the process, they’ve both learned the activist skill set on the job, learning how best to craft their messages. And in that time they’ve both come to the understanding that they have to learn how to sell their ideas, a realization that gets to the core of why and how mountaintop removal is an environmentally abhorred activity that is all but ignored outside the engaged and enraged.
“I think people don’t value or understand that that’s a different culture down there, and it’s a unique culture and an important culture, and it has a lot of values being lost in the rest of the nation,” Ann Pancake says. “And, of course, most people perceive it not as a culture that has value, but as a hillbilly, white-trash kind of culture. So they don’t think that it deserves preserving. This wouldn’t be going on if it was in some middle-class white neighborhood in California.”
Mountaintop removal’s mainstream media coverage slowed to a trickle in late 2001 and early ’02 for one very obvious reason: Sept. 11. Terrorism, homeland security, war in Iraq—matters of national security and foreign policy trumped everything else. The issue didn’t disappear completely, but the lengthy, in-depth stories were replaced by shorter news briefs about rulings, policy changes, reports from protests, etc.
In the past two years, however, different kinds of coverage have emerged in mainstream media. These pieces are often more personal essays and editorials from regional writers that place the emotional and environmental appeals in the fore of their arguments—such as found in the first section of this very article. It’s an impassioned, imperative tone seen in Erik Reece’s April 2005 “Death of a Mountain” first-person essay in Harper’s magazine. It’s the urgency underlying Diana Nelson Jones’ Feb. 26, 2006, profile of citizen activists (including Gunnoe) in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Whether a purposely conscious move on the writers’ part or merely a tone shift from news reporting to arts and features stories, the tenor of these stories focuses a bigger spotlight on the feelings, thoughts, and lives of the Appalachian activists—and they’re savvy enough to seize it in an effort to defuse cultural assumptions.
“I think, honestly, the reason that it’s ignored is because we are who we are,” Gunnoe says. “We’re hillbillies from southern West Virginia, and it’s OK to do this to a subhuman culture of people, which is the way the biggest part of the world looks at us.”
“I think there’s a lot more environmental damage going on that needs to be talked about, evidence that this is total destruction, but I think that most readers, most mainstream Americans, won’t react to that,” Bonds says. “And, of course, I think that’s because they’re looking at Appalachia. I think they really need to look at the people they’ve labeled and stereotyped as ignorant and see that we’re really not ignorant people. We were just labeled that way by the people that profited by labeling us.”
Gunnoe and Bonds aren’t making paranoid claims. Watch any TV news coverage of this issue and its visual language tells its own story. Interviews with accented, T-shirt- and jeans-clad locals who live in the hollows enumerating the damages being done to their homes and lands are followed by scenes of a well-groomed man in a suit at a press conference. The images tell a story that allows assumptions to inform the message as much as what each is saying.
“The stereotype of the ‘hillbilly’ goes back to right after the Civil War, and it really takes even sharper form right around 1890,” Ann Pancake says. “It coincides exactly with the industrialization of the region. That’s when [companies] came in and took everything, starting the coal and timbering of the region, just before the 20th century when the rest of the country’s industrializing, so they need the coal to run the steel mills and everything else. So it’s not an accident that the stereotype appears about the same time.
“They’re coming up for the land grab, [and] it makes it more justifiable that you’re going to come in and exploit this region because—this is admittedly simplified, but it’s true—if you’ve got these kind of people here who are basically barbarians that need to be civilized anyway,” she continues. “You know, take out the resources with a missionary attitude toward the people who live there.”
Catherine Pancake avoids perpetuating those myths in Diamonds in a very subtle manner. Her footage catches people in casual environments in and around their homes and offices, in the hollows, and at protests in Charleston. And she follows every claim of injustice or mistreatment by the coal industry with a visual documentation of that environmental claim, or a table, chart, or graphic citing information from state and regulatory agencies supporting it. She does the same with her interviews with coal industry representatives, making spin and information control translucent. It makes for an information-dense viewing experience, but it effectively breaks away from the journalistic norm.
“I really try to substantiate what is going on with the actual facts, because there’s perceived veracity issues,” Pancake says. “Like, some Appalachian people will come to some place in Ohio and they’ll start, ‘Yeah they’re doing this and doing that.’ And people will wonder, ‘Are they telling the truth?’ Because it can sound like people are exaggerating, and it makes people wonder, ‘Is anyone telling the truth?’
“This just gets back to the old Appalachian stereotypes that they’re not truthful or that they’re hysterical or that they’re not educated, so they don’t know what they’re talking about,” she continues. “And the industry uses that to their advantage. They’ll start rumors about people or discredit people by calling them welfare thieves or say, ‘Yeah, if they had a job they wouldn’t have so much time to go around talking shit on us.’”
It’s not only outsiders who act on such skepticism. The coal industry cannily casts activists as a force trying to take jobs away from unions, a move that pits community members against each other. “Since I became an activist, I’ve had sand put in the gas tank of my truck,” Gunnoe says. “I’ve had my dog shot. I’ve had my kids harassed—just absolutely unreasonable things. I get ran off the road. I get the finger everywhere I go. And that’s the least of what they can do to me. They’ve already robbed me of my life and the future I had planned for my family. The only thing they can do is kill me now. They’ve already done the worst of it.”
“They’ve always done that,” Bonds says. “They’re the experts at that. Even when they first came to Appalachia, they divided the people. When [coal companies] provided homes they’d put the black people in one part. And then they had different sections for the immigrants, like the Italians and the Polish. And they kept us away from the immigrants and the black people, but we learned how to organize [into unions] anyway.”
Pancake sees this perception issue much more bluntly, and Diamonds reflects her hard-line approach. She’s the first to admit that she is working with an agenda that views mountaintop removal and the forces that support it as a bad economics and environmentalism, and acknowledges that her movie aims to spread that message across as many movie screens as possible: at festivals, college campuses, environmental conferences, activist road shows, and basically any place that will have it. It’s why the movie was made as a labor of love—it cost “only between $40,000 and $50,000,” Pancake says. She funded it primarily with her own money and small arts grants. Helping her throughout have been people willing to work affordably or even donate their time. The Gilmore Girls’ Lauren Graham narrates, and Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny provides the acoustic guitar soundtrack.
In fact, Pancake is still tweaking the final sound master and wants to put the very last postproduction touches on it. But she hopes to be able get it into the proverbial “out there” soon. In her ideal world Diamonds screens frequently and often.
And if the movie is criticized for being dogmatic and uncompromising, it’s only because it is trying to counter generations of misinformation about the Appalachian region and its residents. “People don’t care about Appalachia and are willing to sacrifice certain parts of the country for their lifestyle,” Pancake says. “So when their story is put together by somebody else and dramatic music is included and it’s backed up by actual facts, it’s a big sigh of relief from them because they’re like, ‘Thank you. We’re not crazy.’”
They’re not only sane, but getting more savvy and sophisticated in their vision by the day. Over the phone Bonds recalls a recent story she read about an activist passing out literature and being rebuked by a man who quickly read it over. “This person looked at him and said, ‘As long as I can get cheap electricity I don’t mind pissing off some hillbillies,’” she says. “OK, alright—he did say ‘pissing off.’ He didn’t say destroying these people, so we still have work to get people to understand that we are literally being bombed, we are being terrorized, we are being poisoned, all this for this lump of fossil fuel, this rotten vegetation that you’re going to try to rely your energy future on? You better look again.”
Black Diamonds’ final third follows the broader actions of the citizen activists. They protest the contemptible situation at Marsh Fork Elementary School (which sits near a slurry pool of coal-waste water bulwarked by a seeping dam and about 260 feet from a coal silo, which loads train cars with coal that is then covered with a chemical binding agent for travel). They work to raise their organization’s profile. Most impressively, they work to reshape the issue from an environmental one that merely effects Appalachian residents to a big-picture energy problem that will affect the country’s future—and possibly sooner rather than later.
“I went to a congressional hearing where a gentleman that worked for [the U.S. Geological Survey] did a presentation and said that coal production in Appalachia had reached peak,” Bonds says. “I know this. I know by looking at the signs in my area that the coal production has reached peak and it’s on the downslide now. And America, if we increase our use of coal, we’re going to be in the same situation with coal that we are now with oil, but it’s going to be worse because all the land, air, and water will have been contaminated to the point that nothing will be able to live in this wasteland. So this is more than just about the mountains.”
Tragedies such as January’s Sago mine disaster push coal mining back into the fore of the media cycle, which helps circulate the activists’ recasting of the issue. In so doing, though, the activists are starting a potentially volatile dialogue. Energy started this decade as a hot topic and is only becoming more so—just look at the recent furor bubbling up from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.’s announcement of how the imminent end of energy price caps will cause bills to spike. It’s easy to sympathize with environmental issues affecting a population when you’re identifying with an underdog fighting a corporate leviathan; it’s more problematic when suggesting radical changes to how we power the country that will mean taking a serious hit in the pocketbook.
“In the northern part of [West Virginia], in the most affluent, upper-crust parts of the state that have tourism and don’t have coal mining, they’re fighting wind farms that are coming to the area,” Bonds says. “And we’re like, Uh, excuse me? Wait one second. You don’t want to look at those wind farms, but it’s OK for us to live the way we live here to produce your electricity? So it is fast become a class issue.”
“I do work on wind farms, and those are considered to be a green form of renewable energy, but there are many people who find them most unattractive and don’t want them anywhere near the mountains that they’re in, and that’s tough,” coal analyst Jamie Heller says. “Because it’s a trade-off. It’s the same with mountaintop removal—it’s something that I think belongs in the hands of the people who live in that region. I know that in areas that I have been in that are strip-mined there are people who are very happy with the flat land that’s been created as a result of the strip-mining. They’re able to build facilities.
“A mountaintop that looks like a mountaintop is a lot prettier than something that has had the top of it removed,” he continues. “On the other hand, removing the tops of those mountains makes the coal cheaper to mine, which produces jobs for that area and cheaper electricity for the area. I don’t presume, sitting here in Washington, D.C., to really make a judgment of whether or not that’s a decent trade-off. But I’m not sure that it makes sense to impose that on them from the outside.”
And that fact also makes the environmental damage all the more galling to the citizen activists. The coal companies overseeing this large-scale devastation aren’t even West Virginia companies: Massey Energy Co.’s corporate headquarters is in Richmond, Va.; Arch Coal Inc. is headquartered in St. Louis. They’re being destroyed and pushed out of their homes by companies that are just going to pack up and leave once they’re done—even though part of the the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act says the companies are supposed to reclaim the mine sites and make the land suitable for use after they’re gone.
Reclaimed mountaintop removal mines, though, are anything but hospitable to plant or animal. Debris, rocks, and soil from blasting are bulldozed into valley fills and compacted down. Then the whole surface is sprayed with hydroseed, a thick water-based mix of seed, mulch, fertilizer, adhesives, and sealants. It’s the fastest and most cost-effective method to seed lawns. It’ll grow anywhere and, usually, turns into suburban-style swards.
Not so on reclaimed mines. “Reclamation is a joke,” Gunnoe says. “Nothing will grow there. I have a 22-year-old mine site—it’s been reclaimed for 22 years—that’s within a mile of my home, and there’s nothing that grows on it but foreign grass. That’s the only thing. They planted pines up there—they being the [state Division] of Natural Resources—probably about seven years ago, and them pines, at this point, the biggest ones I know of are only about 18 inches tall. And in the wintertime they turn yellow.” She laughs: “There seems to have been a reason they call ’em ‘evergreens.’”
Last year Pancake paid a helicopter pilot the $350-per-half-hour fuel charge to take her over mountaintop removal sites for aerial footage, and these images in Black Diamonds begin to convey the extent of what the technique has done. Everybody told her that she couldn’t really get a sense from down in the hollows. From above, tree-lined forests rolling over mountaintops suddenly turn into slate-gray plains that look more unforgiving than the Dakota badlands. And as her camera flies above them, they just keep going and going and going.
“People don’t necessarily understand the relationship of the West Virginia people to their land,” Pancake says. “Because sometimes people elsewhere in America have no relationship with their surroundings and very little relationship with the community, very little relationship with sense of place. So they’re people who aren’t going to care about this at first.
“And, supposedly, the more money a community has the more it cares about the environment,” she continues. “It’s one of those sociology hierarchy things. You know—SUV, then the environment. Once you have all your stuff, then you’re, like, Oh, the environment. But when I show this footage to people, they get it right away. It’s hard to ignore when you see it.”
And in the end, it’s such confrontation with appalling, blatant facts that the activists and, with Black Diamonds, Pancake hope to burn into brains. Fact: Some 700 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried and 1,200 have been affected by mountaintop removal fills. Fact: Some 380,000 acres of West Virginia mountains have been irrevocably altered by mountaintop removal. Fact: Coal mining employs fewer and fewer miners each year. Fact: All Appalachian coal will eventually be gone or unusable. Fact: Energy companies are making way too much money as is to change anything about how they provide power to consumers. (According to the North Carolina-based environmental organization Appalachia Voices, the coal industry would lose an estimated $490 million annually if mountaintop removal mining stopped.) Fact: We’re all going to pay for that in some way.
Such is the knowledge that Appalachians live with daily. “We know we don’t seem to go by the same rules as the rest of America,” Bonds says. “So it makes it hard, but then again, the most ardent activist is the one that’s just been flooded out or been blasted out or run off the road by a coal truck. So it’s been a journey and it’s been a roller-coaster ride and it’s not over yet. It’s just beginning. And I just tell everybody to tighten their seat belts.”
The writer would like to thank Bing Manch, who maintains the West Virginia Political Sweatbox blog for his invaluable insight into West Virginia’s political and media landscape.
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